Gas Attack?

by Bill McKibben

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A new study in Nature describes a new possible climate threat. We’ve known for some time that there is lots of methane stored in frozen form in the world’s oceans. The best known of these clathrate formations are in the Arctic, but today’s study finds them across the Atlantic, and by implication around the rest of the seafloor. Methane appears to be bubbling up out of these vents–which is bad news, since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule much stronger than carbon dioxide:

The seeps were discovered in a stretch of ocean waters from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Georges Bank, Mass. The majority are located at a depth of about 1,640 feet, which is at the upper level of stability for gas hydrate.

“Warming of the ocean waters could cause this ice to melt and release gas,”Adam Skarke, a geoscientist at Mississippi State University and the study’s lead author, told NBC News. “So there may be some connection here to intermediate ocean warming, though we need to carry out further investigations to confirm if that is the case,” he added.

The theory is, much of the heat from global warming is currently going into the ocean, not the air.  In fact, there was a study just yesterday–Justin Worland summarizes :

Temperatures have risen more slowly in the past decade than in the previous 50 years and will continue to rise at a somewhat slower rate in the next decade, according to a new study, even as climate change continues to raise temperatures to unprecedented levels worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained the temporary slowdown in rising temperatures as a potential consequence of the end of a 30-year current cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that pushes heat into the ocean.

The Economist looks at how the study credits the oceans for the pause:

Dr Chen and Dr Tung have shown where exactly in the sea the missing heat is lurking. … [O]ver the past decade and a bit the ocean depths have been warming faster than the surface. This period corresponds perfectly with the pause, and contrasts with the last two decades of the 20th century, when the surface was warming faster than the deep. The authors calculate that, between 1999 and 2012, 69 zettajoules of heat (that is, 69 x 1021 joules—a huge amount of energy) have been sequestered in the oceans between 300 metres and 1,500 metres down. If it had not been so sequestered, they think, there would have been no pause in warming at the surface.

Some of that heat may well be causing these methane formations to melt, in what would be yet another vicious feedback loop. But even if this turns out to (and oh one hopes) a red herring, the basic news that the oceans are heating quickly is quite bad enough. In part because we don’t notice it as much as we do heating of the air, which slows down our response.

As Jane Lee puts it:

It’s important to note that a pause in rising temperatures doesn’t mean global warming isn’t happening, writes Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at NCAR, in an email. “Global warming hasn’t stopped, it has temporarily shifted to the subsurface ocean,” says Meehl, who first proposed that the Atlantic Ocean was storing some of the missing heat.

Indeed, it’s just a matter of time before this heat is reflected in atmospheric temperatures, says Tung. If this 30-year cycle holds, we’re starting to climb out of the current pause, he explains.

“The frightening part,” Tung says, is “it’s going to warm just as fast as the last three decades of the 20th century, which was the fastest warming we’ve seen.” Only now, we’ll be starting from a higher average surface temperature than before.

Oh, and by the way, to return to this problem with methane: it’s why scientists increasingly worry that fracking is a bad idea not just for local water supplies, but for the climate. As Naomi Oreskes pointed out recently, if more than a couple of percent of methane leaks, it’s possible that the Obama adminstration’s turn to natural gas hasn’t really cut our greenhouse gas emissions at all:

But how do we know what our emissions actually are? Most people would assume that we measure them, but they would be wrong.  Emissions are instead calculated based on energy data — how much coal, oil, and gas was bought and sold in the U.S. that year — multiplied by assumed rates of greenhouse gas production by those fuels. Here’s the rub: the gas calculation depends on the assumed leakage rate.  If we’ve been underestimating leakage, then we’ve underestimated the emissions.

One Perfect Thing

by Bill McKibben

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Always a bit disconcerting to find yourself part of a trend, but on a day when the most e-mailed story at the NYT is about older people getting rid of their clutter, Sue and I are…waiting for the delivery of a dumpster, so we can dispose of some of the detritus of 30 years of living on and off in the mountains of the Adirondacks. The sheer volume of useless junk that even a fairly resolute anti-materialist manages to acquire is staggering, and I can feel a weight lifting off me as it goes.

But it did get me thinking about the few possessions I truly love, and why. On my short list, most are built for use in the outdoors: my mountain bike, my cross-country racing skis, and near the very top of the list my solo canoe. It’s built by a neighbor, Pete Hornbeck, who has made a good living producing these small craft for decades. It’s light as a feather, sturdy, and stable even in a good chop–in other words, perfect for these Adirondack woods, where 3,000 ponds, streams and lakes are connected by short bushwhacking portages. You can plunk a backpack in the boat, paddle to the carry, and then sling the canoe over your shoulder like a handbag as you head off for the next body of water. And it’s no wonder it works so well: these are Kevlar (or carbon fiber if you’re rich) knockoffs of a classic wooden boat, the Wee Lassie, built for an early Adirondack guide and now enshrined in the boat room at the prize-winning regional museum.

My Hornbeck boat would itself be useless clutter in other parts of the country, and it got me wondering if other people had prize possessions, tuned to place and season, that warmed their hearts. Share yours by emailing dish@andrewsullivan.com. And now back to the serious business of discarding.

(Photo: Hornbeck Boats)

News Of The World

by Bill McKibben

Climate Change And Global Pollution To Be Discussed At Copenhagen Summit

Every day there’s something more immediately important happening in the world: ISIS is seizing an airbase this morning, and California is recovering from an earthquake, and Michael Brown is being buried.

But there’s nothing more important that’s happening each and every day than the ongoing deterioration of the planet on which we depend. Though on a geological time scale it’s proceeding at a hopelessly rapid pace, in terms of the news cycle it happens just slowly enough to be mainly invisible. It’s only when a new study emerges, or a shocking new data set, that we pay momentary attention, until the Next New Thing distracts us.

Here’s one installment in this ongoing saga, released this morning by Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It’s about birds, and the fact that across the planet they’re in serious trouble:

In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling meadowlarks are in a free-fall, along with those everywhere else on the planet. Graceful fliers like swifts and swallows that snap up insects on the wing are showing widespread declines in Europe and North America. Eagles, vultures and other raptors are on the wane throughout Africa. Colonies of sea birds such as murres and puffins on the North Atlantic are vanishing, and so are shorebirds, including red knots in the Western Hemisphere. Sandpipers, spoonbills, pelicans and storks, among the migratory birds dependent on the intertidal flats of Asia’s Yellow Sea, are under threat. Australian and South American parrots are struggling and some of the iconic penguins of Antarctica face starvation.

While birds sing, they also speak. Many of their declines are driven by the loss of places to live and breed – their marshes, rivers, forests and plains – or by diminished food supply. But more and more these days the birds are telling us about new threats to the environment and potentially human health in the coded language of biochemistry. Through analysis of the inner workings of birds’ cells, scientists have been deciphering increasingly urgent signals from ecosystems around the world.

Like the fabled canaries that miners once thrust into coal mines to check for poisonous gases, birds provide the starkest clues in the animal kingdom about whether humans, too, may be harmed by toxic substances. And they prophesy what might happen to us as the load of carbon-based, planet-warming gases in the atmosphere and oceans climbs ever higher.

This news follows by a couple of weeks a study showing that invertebrate numbers–not species, but total numbers–have fallen 45% in the last 35 years. That seemed impossible to me when I first read it, so I checked with a few biologist friends. Yep, they said, for the species that have been studied that seems right. One added, “when I was a boy and we’d go for a drive in the summer, the windshield would be splattered with bugs. That doesn’t happen so much any more.”

Or consider this: Researchers using the incredibly sensitive GPS sensors found that the ongoing western drought had cost the region 63 trillion gallons of lost groundwater since 2013, taking enough weight off the crust of the planet that the Sierras had jumped 0.6 inches skyward.

Can we just review? Forty five percent fewer invertebrates in the last 35 years. We’re talking about a scale of destruction–of habitat, of climate, of cell biology–that staggers the mind. There are some things that could be done, but they are mostly enormous too (above all, stop burning fossil fuel.) Taking those giant steps would first require really paying attention. We have the satellites and sensors and supercomputers that we need to sound the alarm, but mostly we tune out the sound.

(Photo: Residential homes sit in front of the coal fueled Ferrybridge power station as it generates electricity on November 17, 2009 in Ferrybridge, United Kingdom. By Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Summer’s End

by Bill McKibben

Yikes, I’ve been looking forward to doing this ever since Andrew asked in mid-summer, but now I feel like Sue and I have been given the keys to a shiny car that we’re a little unsure how to drive. I note with some relief that the week before Labor Day is the temporal equivalent of the empty mall parking lot, and that the regular Dish staff, in addition to doing most of the posting, also oversees what we write, a bit like the driving instructor with the extra set of brakes on his side of the floorboard. But I’m thrilled to be here, because like Sue I’ve been following Andrew around the web for years, and find myself strangely moved be part of the inquiring and eloquent community of readers that has developed here.

I’m best known as an environmental writer and activist. My preoccupation is global warming, about which I wrote what is commonly regarded as onePCMiheartNYC02 of the first books for non-scientists. The End of Nature came out a quarter-century ago next month—and I will cap that 25 years of involvement by helping organize what will (we hope) be the largest climate demonstration in human history on Sept. 21st in New York. (You sign up here and yes I will mention it again). Thinking about climate has molded my outlook enormously. I’ve come to think that the culture, including the blogosphere, pays far too little attention to the ongoing collapse of our physical systems: yes, the planet is burning in Diyala province, in the streets of Aleppo, in the country around Donetsk, in the fearful alleys of Gaza City, and in a dozen other places. But the planet is also burning—last month the demographers told us that a majority of the planet’s population has never known a month where the globe was cooler than the 20th century average. Climate change is no longer a future threat—it’s the single most distinctive fact about our time on earth, so it tends to preoccupy me.

That said, I’m conscious we’re at summer’s end—I feel the need to wring the last easy joys out of the season before the world really begins again a week from tomorrow. So with any luck I’ll manage a post or two of the slightly less-dire variety. It’s useful to me to remember that when it gets hot out one should build a giant protest movement (in my case I’ve volunteered at 350.org since I helped found it six years ago) but one might also consider going for a swim.